Adding strings to an arrangement is a great way to inject motion into your music.
Of the four principal orchestral instrument families — woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings — there can be no doubt that the last is the most versatile. Strings are fantastically adaptable: they can play soaring, expressive melodies, lush chord pads, stately bass lines, fast runs, rhythmic figures and flourishes of all kinds, spanning an emotional range from romantic, tender and intimate to fierce, heroic and grandiose. Unlike their brass and woodwind colleagues, string players can sustain notes indefinitely by means of a continuous alternating bowing, and are able to play two or three notes at a time (a technique known as double-stopping or triple-stopping). They can also produce an extensive variety of articulations and effects, which we’ll examine in this series.
The strings family comprises violin, viola, cello (or ‘violoncello’, to give it its full name) and double bass. The smallest and highest-pitched of the four, the violin is categorised as operating in the soprano range, the viola (which plays a fifth lower than the violin) is technically an alto instrument, while the cello and double bass, pitched respectively one and two octaves below the viola, occupy the tenor and bass registers. For classification purposes, the harp is sometimes lumped in as an honorary family member, but although it has great musical affinity with the strings (and does indeed boast an impressive array of strings itself), the harp is utterly different in sound and function and should really be considered separately.
The string instruments’ playing ranges are shown in diagrams 1 and 2. You’ll notice that they overlap to a considerable degree; this overlap can cause headaches for novice arrangers, but once you get familiar with each instrument’s sound and customary musical role, it gets easier to decide which of them should play in a particular range. Since we’re talking samples here, I’ve shown the double bass’ bottom note as C1, the usual lower limit of sampled basses and effectively the lowest note of the orchestra. Though some sample libraries extend the range down to B0, in real life a standard four-string double bass’ bottom string is tuned to E1, the same pitch as a bass guitar’s low string.
You can hear samples of these playing ranges at Vienna Symphonic Library’s online Academy pages: go to www.vsl.co.at/en/academy, click on the ‘Strings’ tab, pick an instrument and click on ‘Range’. These information-packed pages also include an overview, detailed history and copious notes on playing techniques, tonal characteristics, typical sound combinations — and so on for each instrument.
Section Sizes & Hierarchy
Strings are by far the largest of the orchestra’s instrument groups. A full symphonic section can feature 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and eight double basses — that’s 60 players in all, collectively producing the big, rich, expansive, opulent sound we’re used to hearing in symphonic concert halls, on film soundtracks and in lavishly produced pop ballads by the likes of Adele.
For musical situations that require a less lush strings timbre, smaller ensembles produce a tighter, more focused sonority which brings out the individual character of the instruments while retaining a homogenous overall sound. Continuing the top-heavy section proportions (designed to balance the larger, low-pitched instruments with the lighter-sounding violins), a typical 21-player chamber strings line-up would be 6/5/4/4/2. If further austerity is demanded, the ultimate exercise in downsizing would be the string quartet, which dispenses with double bass and features a line-up of first violin, second violin, viola and cello. While the tonal economy of the four solo instruments can be astringent, it has huge expressive potential and cuts straight to the heart of the music, which accounts for its popularity among composers.
What’s the difference between first and second violins? As with our UK train services, it’s a matter of class. Although the musical standard of orchestras is universally high, exceptional violin players tend to be enlisted in the ‘firsts’ section, headed by a principal violinist who takes any solos and occasionally issues musical instructions to their colleagues. You’re unlikely to encounter any obvious disparity of playing ability between first and second violins in a sample library, though — tonal differences are usually due to their respective section sizes — so rather than assuming that the first violins are superior, it’s advisable to listen to both and assess them on their own merits.
Full Strings Ahead
A simple way of starting a string-based arrangement is to sketch out your basic musical ideas using a keyboard piano-and-strings combo patch. I find this particular sound combination inspiring for writing, as it combines the piano’s rhythmic incisiveness with the lush sustain of a string section, thereby creating an immediate sense of symphonic size. Once you’ve blocked out a few ideas with the combo patch, you can record a guide piano-only part into your DAW to serve as a basic road map for your arrangement.
The next step is to add strings, for which you’ll need a decent sample library. If you don’t have such a thing and are considering which one to buy, check out the ‘Which Strings Library?’ box below, which will hopefully narrow your choice somewhat. You’ll notice that some libraries don’t supply a separate second violins section, which has attracted criticism. Personally I don’t find this to be a problem — when creating MIDI arrangements, I’m happy to work with a single violin section, provided it sounds right and offers a generous selection of playing styles.
Rather than getting bogged down in orchestration details at the outset, some sample users (myself included) prefer to compose with the single ‘full strings’ or ‘ensemble’ patches provided in most string libraries. These patches map the instruments according to range with violins in the upper register, blended violins and violas in the middle, cellos in the tenor/baritone range and basses in the bottom octave. This gives instant access to the strings’ full six-octave compass, an advantage for keyboard players who like to play with both hands (which I find essential when working out chord voicings).
As you’ll see in our product overview, some libraries focus entirely on ‘pre-orchestrated’ ensembles and neglect to supply individual string sections, though a few divide their strings into high (violins and violas) and low (cellos and basses) blended sections. While the simplicity of these pre-orchestrated patches is an undoubted aid to creative workflow, access to the separate sections is essential for detailed string programming.
Pop music has a long and illustrious history of using strings for ‘sweetening’, adding a seductive romantic dimension to the records of 1950s pop crooners such as Adam Faith, ’60s chanteuses Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield and lush ’70s pop acts like the Carpenters. Fast-forward to the present day, and you’ll hear sumptuous strings swelling up behind the outpourings of those big-selling artists who can still command the budget to hire a large string orchestra. Some regrettable mistakes have occurred along the way: in 1997 the Verve sampled a few bars of an old orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ for their song ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, resulting in a very expensive legal settlement. Ironically, the iconic 12-note opening violins lick (which can be heard regularly on ITV football programmes in the UK) was an original contribution by string arranger Wil Malone, but it’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richards who get the publishing royalties.
Enough of such music biz shenanigans. You can add simple string pads to your arrangements without getting sued by dialling up a ‘full strings’ patch and playing the kind of block chords shown in diagram 3. Such simple minor chord progressions are effective and easy to play, but they arguably become a little boring when repeated: you can liven up the sequence by introducing melodic movement such as the inner part marked in red in diagram 4. In this example, the moving part adds both rhythmic and harmonic interest, as it changes the nature of the chords in the second half of each bar. You can achieve a similar effect by adding movement to the bass line, as shown in diagram 5.
The point of the exercise is to get some mobility into your music, something that strings do supremely well. Once you become familiar with this approach, you can employ it in the kind of chordal movements depicted in diagram 6: the resolution of the suspended ‘added second’ interval down to the satisfyingly harmonious root note a tone below is an all-time classic musical device that works supremely well in string arrangements — play it with a lush full strings patch, and you’ll see what I mean!
Part Assignment & Patch Types
Having programmed your string pad using a full strings patch, you can either leave it the way it is or consider assigning its notes to different instruments, in order to give yourself more musical and mixing options. The simplest way of doing the latter is to create a separate software instrument track in your DAW for each individual section you need. Let’s say first violins, second violins, violas and cellos — copy the original ‘full strings’ MIDI notes to each of these tracks, then use your DAW’s key/piano roll MIDI editor to visually identify which note or notes should be played by the section in question. You can then mute all the unused notes in the track. I’d advise against actually deleting them, though, in case you later decide to re-assign a note to a different instrument section.
Further thoughts on this topic can be read online in my SOS June 2012 article Arranging For Strings (Part 1), under the headings 'Part Writing' and 'Painless Extraction'. Though that four-part series was written with real players in mind, many of its musical points apply equally to working with samples.
Orchestral library patch names can be bewildering: ‘1st Violins 1 NV NV NV VB RR Ni’ may seem impossibly convoluted, but it sounds positively snappy compared to ‘FhsMt_mrc_sus-VelXfd_ModSftMrc-rr’. These mad names occurred in products I spent some time reviewing, and I’m still not altogether sure what they mean! Another comprehension failure occurred when Spitfire Audio began describing their string patches as ‘brushes’, evidently some kind of fanciful paint-related metaphor which went completely over the head of your dim-witted scribe. It therefore comes as a relief when the duration of notes is indicated by straightforward, intelligible names such as ‘sustains’, ‘longs’ (same thing) and ‘shorts’.
To play the string pad examples shown earlier you’ll need straight sustain or ‘longs’ patches — if there’s a choice, use a sustain patch with a fast attack, which will minimise the slight built-in delay inherent in most string ensemble long-note performances. If you want to push the boat out, you can separate out some of the parts and assign them to legato patches, the workings of which are described in the ‘Legato Obligato’ box — however, sustains usually suffice for pad work, and you can reserve legato patches for important melody lines.
I suspect many reading this will be interested in the contemporary ‘action strings’ style that currently pervades contemporary games and trailer soundtracks. It’s worth reflecting on where this style originated: though I’m no musicologist, my theory is the pounding, muscular, repeated polytonal eighth-note staccato string chords that occur three and a half minutes into Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring must have set a significant crowd-stirring precedent, as evidenced by the Parisian audience rioting (not in a good way) at the piece’s premiere. This rhythmic style later emerged in the writing of cinematic maestro Bernard Herrmann (as heard in the driving, neurotic strings score of the terrifying Psycho), gaining pop credibility via George Martin’s string arrangement for the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’, before taking root in Bourne-style action film scores and becoming the style of choice for many media composers.
Diagram 7 shows the type of simple, driving rhythmic phrases used in contemporary media scores. Such repeated figures are called ‘ostinatos’, and the strings articulation commonly used to perform them is named ‘spiccato’, from the Italian word meaning ‘to separate’. This bowing style produces short, distinct notes, resulting in a propulsive momentum that pushes the music forward; it has effectively ousted the kind of staccato performances found in older libraries, which tended to linger a little on the accented note. Nowadays sample library developers make their short notes very short indeed, and though staccatos are still provided, they can sound positively pedestrian compared to the zippy spiccato, ‘brushed spiccato’ and very short staccatissimo articulations contained in contemporary sample collections.
Such simple rhythmic phrases can be fleshed out without losing their direct, urgent simplicity. In diagram 8, we’ve added an upper and lower part to the original two-note figure: an effective orchestration would be violins playing the upper part, violas on the original figure and cellos playing the lower part (a repeated fifth interval of G2 and D3). If played by real players, you’d divide the cello section so that half the players played the low G2 while the other half played the higher D3, with the instruction ‘divisi’ written on their parts to indicate the split. However, when using samples you can just play both notes simultaneously and have done with it! Incidentally, although the original alternating Bb3/G3 two-note phrase could theoretically be played by violins, violas are a better bet here because the low G3 would have to be played on the violins’ open bottom string — and this has a different timbre from the instrument’s stopped notes.
Orchestral sample users spend a lot of time discussing the realism of MIDI mock-ups, and it’s certainly a word I’ve used a lot in my reviews. However, there’s an argument that since a sampled instrument can never sound totally real, it might be better to aim for overall musical expression rather than focus narrowly on realism. The gap between live musicians and samples is closing, and orchestral mock-ups have become so convincing that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. However, creating the massive musical detail of an orchestral score with samples is tremendously time-consuming, and few of us have the patience to replicate all the tiny subtleties and inflections that go into a real instrumental performance. Perhaps a sensible compromise is to aim for overall authenticity while recognising that emotional engagement, expression and, above all, musical creativity are the key to a successful arrangement.
Thanks for reading! Join me here next month, when we’ll continue our journey into the heart of the sampled orchestra with some more advanced string-writing techniques.
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 1 Getting Started
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 2 Basic String Writing
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 3 Essential String Playing Styles
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 4 Basic Woodwind Writing
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 5 Into The Woods
The Sampled Orchestra: Part 6 The Brass Family
Contemporary orchestral libraries benefit from a fantastic feature that’s known as ‘interval legato’ or ‘true legato’ sampling. Invented by Vienna Symphonic Library in 2002, this brilliantly effective technique transforms melody lines by joining notes together in real time with little slices of sound known as ‘legato transitions’. As with all good inventions, the end user is blissfully unaware of what’s going on under the bonnet: you simply play in a legato style (ie. joining up your notes), and your melodies automatically sound smooth, mellifluous and free of clunks and bumps.
Legato patches sound so good because the intervals between notes are real. Here’s how I explained it back in 2003: “The instruments are sampled playing every interval from a minor second to an octave, upwards and downwards from each note in their range, after which the samples are trimmed so that only a few milliseconds of the starting note remain. By retaining a trace of the previous note, these ‘real legato’ samples preserve the smooth transitions between one pitch and the next.”
In order for the sample player software to select the appropriate interval for your legato performances, played notes have to be slightly overlapped. Any gaps in a melody line will result in a distinctly non-legato discontinuity of sound, which means that you occasionally have to scrutinise your DAW’s piano roll MIDI editor and extend the length of one or two notes to bridge the gaps. However, that’s a small price to pay for an inspirational feature that makes sampled instruments vastly more organic and listenable.
Dealing with the sampled orchestra’s numerous musical styles has always been a problem. One way of managing the ever-changing stream of articulations that occur in a MIDI arrangement is to use the keyswitch patches provided in most orchestral libraries.
These combine multiple playing styles within a single patch, saving users the chore of setting up a separate software instrument track for every articulation used in an arrangement.
As the name suggests, keyswitch patches use designated keys outside the instrument’s playing range to switch between articulations.
Screen 1 (above) shows a simple switch between staccato and sustain created in the Vienna Instruments Pro sample player — the two keyswitches are marked in blue, with the instrument’s mapped samples shown in white.
EastWest supply preset keyswitch programs for their orchestral libraries (as shown in Screen 2), and Spitfire Audio’s Overview panel shows the patch’s available articulations (Screen 3). In comparison, the Berlin-based Orchestral Tools company use the user-configurable keyswitch system depicted in Screen 4 (below).
Keyswitches can be played at the same time as a musical performance (which takes a bit of practice), or added after the event. The latter approach is not only easier on the brain, it also means you can play with two hands.
When recording long-note performances such as those shown in diagrams 3-6, you can add highly realistic crescendos and diminuendos by using the Velocity Crossfade feature. As mentioned in Part 1, when the Velocity Crossfade function is activated, dynamic control is assigned to a MIDI controller, usually a keyboard’s modulation (or ‘mod’) wheel. Push up the wheel, and you’ll hear instruments crossfading (not switching) through their velocity layers, smoothly morphing from soft quiet notes to the brighter tone of louder deliveries. Because of the subtle tonal changes accompanying dynamic changes, the musical effect is more authentic than simply altering the instrument’s volume.
In MIDI terms, the mod wheel is designated as ‘Control Change 1’ (CC#1 for short) and transmits a range of values between 0 and, when pushed all the way up, 127. A vital part of orchestral sample programming, these mod-wheel movements will help your MIDI performances sound lively and organic: you can perform them at the same time as recording a part (the favoured approach of many professionals), or add them after the event and merge the mod-wheel performance together with the played notes.
Other MIDI control changes include CC#7 (Volume) and CC#11 (Expression). These two do exactly the same thing, which is to control the instrument’s volume level. This duplication of function has led to confusion regarding their use, but in recent years a sensible consensus emerged: use CC#7 to set the basic volume of an instrument, then add CC#11 to automate expressive volume swells and fades.
The latter approach is highly effective when done in tandem with the CC#1 velocity crossfades described above: CC#11 rides exaggerate the natural dynamic range of the samples, creating very dramatic crescendos. Doing this in real time requires two MIDI faders (pots are definitely not recommended), which has led to users incorporating MIDI controllers such as the Akai Midimix, Behringer BCF2000 and Novation Zero SL MkII into their setups. (Note that there are some low-cost virtual faders available for smartphones and tablets, including the iPad.)
Paul Thompson of Spitfire Audio has this tip: “The key for me is to always keep the dynamics moving in every single part. It’s OK to enter dynamics separately on screen after the fact, but the best way is with a physical slider — it’s more human to ride a fader rather than drawing data in, you get an immediate emotional response.”
Which Strings Library?
With so many products available, choosing the right strings sample library for your music can be difficult. A good place to start is our June 2015 Orchestral Strings Sample Libraries Buyers Guide (free to view at www.soundonsound.com/reviews/string-instruments). Since the guide’s publication, some titles have been merged into unified collections, prices have changed and a number of new libraries have been released. With that in mind, I've listed below some current popular strings sample libraries, concentrating on post-2002 products that benefit from legato intervals and other modern techniques.
Note that this overview omits solo instrument libraries (which I’ll list next month), phrase-based collections and specialised string effects libraries, which will be covered later in the series. It also intentionally excludes the basic libraries that come bundled with DAW software — these might be fine for sketching out basic ideas, but I’m unaware of any that are up to the job of serious orchestral composition and arrangement.
For ease of comparison I’ve divided the libraries into two categories: strings-only; and full orchestral collections that include strings. You’ll find more details of these libraries’ content, along with demos and video walkthroughs, on the relevant company’s web site. You’ll also find plenty of unofficial walkthroughs uploaded by users on the Internet, though please be aware that some of them are a bit dodgy and might give the wrong impression. Beware also trade-show demonstrations recorded through someone’s phone, usually featuring a deafening background hubbub of raised voices, which can make the most exquisitely produced, high-end sample library sound like it was (in the words of Captain Beefheart) “recorded through a fly’s ear”. On the plus side, you can read in-depth reviews of many of the listed titles on the SOS web site.
The list shows string section sizes in order of instrument type (1st violins/2nd violins/violas/cellos/double basses), with a single asterisk indicating a section or instrument that is not included in the library. The figure in square brackets that follows indicates the number of microphone positions excluding any mixes, while the GB number at the end shows the total size of the library (including all volumes) in Gigabytes once installed on your hard drive. While multiple mic positions automatically increase the number of samples, they don’t add any extra musical content — so a big GB count doesn’t necessarily indicate a large articulation menu.
Following this scheme, you can hopefully see that the first entry (VSL Appassionata Strings I & II) contains 20 1st violins, no 2nd violins (hence the asterisk), 14 violas, 12 cellos and 10 double basses, that it has only a single mic position, and that the library occupies 19.4GB on your sample drive once installed.
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
Appassionata Strings I & II: 20/*/14/12/10  19.4GB
Orchestral Strings I & II: 14/*/10/8/6  42.4GB
Dimension Strings I & II: 8/*/6/6/4  246.8GB
Chamber Strings I & II: 6/*/4/3/2  40.7GB
EastWest/Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
Hollywood Strings: 16/14/10/10/7  312.0GB
Spitfire Audio www.spitfireaudio.com
Symphonic Strings: 16/14/12/10/8  101.1GB
Chamber Strings: 4/3/3/3/3  287.7GB
LCO Strings $: 6/*/4/3/2  28.1GB
Orchestral Tools www.orchestraltools.com
Berlin Strings: 8/6/5/5/4 [4+1] 129.0GB
LA Scoring Strings 2.5 ** ^: 16/*/12/10/8  16.4GB
Adagio series ** ^ # : 11/*/7/6/4  90.2GB
Agitato **: 11/*/7/6/*  32.7GB
Anthology ** : 11/*/7/6/4  109GB
(Anthology is derived from Adagio & Agitato)
Cinestrings Core: 16/12/10/10/7  50GB
Kirk Hunter www.kirkhunterstudios.com
Concert Strings 3 ** ^ LS : 16/16/16/16/16  85GB
Cinematic Strings www.cinematicstrings.com
Cinematic Strings 2.0: 12/8/7/7/6  21.1GB
Cinematic Studio Strings: 10/7/7/6/5 34.5GB
Native Instruments www.native-instruments.com
Symphony Series String Ensemble **: 16/14/12/10/8  34.2GB
Session Strings: 4/*/3/2/2  1.6GB
Session Strings Pro: 4/*/3/2/2  32GB
Novo Modern Strings: unpublished  25GB
Strezov Sampling www.strezov-sampling
Cornucopia Strings 2: 6/5/4/3/2  9GB
Trailer Strings: 18/*/16/14/12  8.7GB
Soaring Strings: 10/*/6/5/4  6.4GB
Adventure Strings: 10/*/6/5/4  5.1GB
MIXED ORCHESTRAL INSTRUMENTS:
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
Special Edition ** ^: various  37.3GB
EastWest/Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
EWQLSO Play Edition ^ :18/11/10/10/9  194GB
Spitfire Audio www.spitfireaudio.com
Albion One PO: unpublished  50GB
Albion II — Loegria PO:14/*/4/4/3  27.3GB
Albion III — Iceni PO ^:*/*/*/24/8  11GB
Orchestral Tools www.orchestraltools.com
Metropolis Ark 1 PO: 4/*/10/8/12  70GB
Metropolis Ark 2 PO: 24/*/10/8/12  54GB
Majestica PO: 20/20/30/30  23.7GB
Project SAM www.projectsam.com
Symphobia PO ^: unpublished  17.4GB
Symphobia 2 PO $: unpublished  18.2GB
Orchestral Essentials 1 PO: unpublished  16GB
Orchestral Essentials 2 PO: unpublished  10.6GB
Da CapoPO: 24/*/10/10/8  7.9GB
Kirk Hunter www.kirkhunterstudios.com
Diamond ** ^: 18/*/10/9/6  65GB
** Includes different and/or configurable section sizes.
^ Also includes solo strings.
# Violins, violas, cellos and basses available as separate volumes.
LS Ensembles consist of layered solo instruments.
$ Basses and cellos play in octaves, no separate basses available.
PO Pre-orchestrated — individual string sections not provided, instruments are blended and mapped according to range into single patches.